Tackling mental health in African communities

Welcome to the Chronic Care Matters podcast, a conversation series of the Chronicity and Care in African Contexts Project.

Chronic Care Matters features conversations with individuals and caregivers with personal experiences of chronic illness, and with researchers, health professionals and advocates who are working with African communities on the continent and in the diaspora. We explore life stories, as well as themes like food, faith, medicine and the mind – tools we can use to prevent and manage chronic diseases, to care for ourselves and for loved ones who live with chronic diseases, and to support caregivers. Thanks for joining us.

For decades, the needs of individuals suffering from mental health disorders have been ignored and neglected in many African countries. This is still the situation today in the Gambia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 120,000 of Gambia’s 1.4 million population have a mental health illness requiring treatment. Yet, 90 per cent are unable to get the treatment they need.

As a result, Salifu Manneh, mental health nurse and PhD researcher has co-founded a small mental health charity in the West African country called Mobee (which means inclusive in the Mandinka language).

In this month’s Researcher of the Month podcast from Chronicity Care Africa, Syerramia Ohene (SO) chats with Salifu Manneh (SM) about some of the existing mental health care challenges in Britain and the Gambia.

Listen to the podcast and read an excerpt from our conversation below:

Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity.

SO: Why are you so interested in mental health care?

SM In the UK, black people make up only three per cent of the population, yet we are more highly represented in mental health institutions than white people.
In the Gambia, care services are very poor. There is only one mental health hospital and it is always full. But we are trying to help people understand that institutional care is not always the best form of care. Rather, we should to look at how we can support people local communities, like we have always done. People with chronic mental health problems can be supported at home. It is important that they feel like they are part of their family, community and country so that they can have a voice.

SO: In your opinion, what are the major barriers to reducing our risk of developing mental health disorders?

SM: There is a saying that there is no mental health without physical health and there is no physical health without mental health. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health. For example, we will not know for many years the full psychological impact of COVID on children and adults. One way to reduce mental health issues within our communities is to pump a lot of resources into mental health promotion. I think that this is the future. We need to say to people that this is a chronic problem and when you deal with a chronic problem, you need many solutions, not just one solution. You also need collaboration among people with different expertise as well as on research and interventions. For example, one of the most shocking statistics from the WHO is that diseases like cancer and diabetes are the world’s largest killers with an estimated about 38 million deaths annually. Sixteen million of those deaths, are among people under 70.

In the Gambia, diabetes is very, very high. Unfortunately, the government is not investing in research to investigate the explosion in the number of diabetes patients. Even though there were people suffering from diabetes in the Gambia while I was growing up, it was nowhere on the scale like it is today. This has happened with the change in people’s diet. For example, people don’t do as much farming as they used to, therefore they rely more on imported food. People are also not nutritionally conscious.

When I was growing up, my mom had a big garden where we grew all the vegetables. In fact, we had so much produce that we could not eat it all and would sell some. But times have changed.

The other challenge is that government policies, recommendations and leadership are lacking. They need to be able to drive the message of the necessary behaviors for the general population to avoid developing chronic illnesses and diseases. We need whole systems and whole approaches in the social determinants of health, physical, social, and emotional wellbeing.

SO: What advice would you give to someone who was struggling to manage their mental health?

SM: Don’t feel marginalised. I’ve read of people who had schizophrenia but went on to become excellent writers and to complete PhD degrees. A mental health diagnosis is not the end of the world. A mental health diagnosis must not prevent you from setting yourself small and big goals and going out to achieve them. Find out about the many medical and non-medicinal interventions that are available. Finally, make an effort to engage with your local community.

Listen to the full podcast:

Salifu Manneh was born and raised in the Gambia. He is a mental health nurse and is a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Thank you for listening to the Chronic Care Matters podcast. For more insights on Chronicity and Care in African Contexts, please visit our website www.chronicitycareafrica.com and follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter [at] Chronicity Care Africa. See you next time.


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